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Email is Dead. Long Live Email.

Every once in a while you’ll see an article claiming “email is dead.” In most cases the author is simply using a sensational headline to attract eyeballs to an article about, you guessed it, some new email service or software that has formed a relationship with the writer.

In a few cases though, the writer is actually serious. They usually say that some form of instant messaging is a far better replacement for that old outdated email your grandfather used – if only, they say, that messaging were more mature. It’s at that point, the writer typically goes on to list several features and capabilities that would make instant messaging truly an email killer – with features including longer messages, attachments, an easy way to include others on the conversation, archives, tags and other means to organize conversations, advanced search capabilities, …oh, and maybe it could all be built on open standards so that anyone could build any client they wanted on top of it.

In other words, instant messaging, they say, would be perfectly suited to kill email, …if it were exactly like email …but with a cool retro hipster name like Cilantroo, and wrapped in an awesome looking new package designed and developed by some rockstar, presumably-under-30 founder whose startup is funded by Ashton Kutcher, and that guy who founded Napster – but only if that Napster guy is still cool.

In other words, these writers are idiots.

Other writers talk about platforms like Yammer as being perfectly positioned to kill email, because they offer more advanced collaborative capabilities and integration with corporate CRM, issue, task and project management systems. This is also funny to me, given these features are so advanced as to be of interest primarily to enterprise users who represent roughly 4% of the total addressable market for email and messaging systems.

Could you seriously picture your grandma or kids using Yammer instead of Gmail? I didn’t think so.

In both cases though, tech and industry writers are doing a good job in proving two things:

First, that the industry of leading edge tech is saturated with self appointed experts, advisors, analysts and media who often don’t even know the history of the very markets and technologies they’re talking about. If they did, they’d know that a big portion of everything new is actually another iteration of technology and utility that has served markets for many years already, but perhaps had been forgotten or replaced a long, long time ago (like, 5 years ago) by much cooler marketing slogans and product positioning.

Second, for much of the past 20 years, consumers and enterprise customers have been pretty clear about what they want – and they still in most cases want email. They also want instant messaging. And they want more advanced communications and collaborative tools that integrate with all their other enterprise systems, too.

A little history…

From the moment AOL created Instant Messenger in 1997, everyone immediately began using the platform for instant, interactive and often “disposable” conversations (exchanges that help solve a problem or request immediately, but which are then rarely referred to later). Some readers here will point out that AOL’s IM was a response to ICQ (released in 1996), and that some form of instant messaging has existed in some form since the 1960′s. But in terms of broad adoption and ubiquity, the turning point was IM.

During this same period, email remained as popular as ever, and continued being used for long form conversations that users often wanted to save and refer to later, including documentation, attachments, receipts and confirmations, letters to friends and family, some basic tasks and events, and so on.

In the corporate or enterprise worlds, email was OK, but these users also wanted more – including collaboration, tracking, compliance and additional security. In the 80′s and 90′s, before Yammer and Kato’s founders were even born I believe (?), enterprise addressed these needs with systems such as Lotus Notes. Some readers again will point out that Lotus Notes and Domino were actually preceded by mainframe-based PLATO Group Notes by more than a decade – but the point is, there has always been this need, and Yammer is just part of the latest iteration of products that seeks to address that need.

Also, I believe, the press and media at that time often claimed Lotus Notes would end email as we know it. Funny, right?

Here is what has always been, and still remains true about messaging and communications:

  1. Consumers and enterprise have always wanted and still need some form of instant messaging which is perfectly designed for live and/or disposable conversations.
  2. The vast majority of consumers and even corporate users have always wanted and still need all the features and capabilities of email.
  3. For more advanced (typically corporate) environments requiring integration with customer, project and sales systems, enterprise has always wanted and still needs some equivalent to Lotus Notes, but better.

While each iteration of leading edge tech seems to consist of much the same things that came around previously, there is some amount of real innovation, great advances in the underlying platforms, capabilities, network speed and interfaces around these technologies. I am by no means claiming everything is a repeat of something else – but a lot of it is. Many startups would save themselves so much time, and could avoid making so many of the same mistakes as their predecessors, by simply learning a bit more about the relatively recent history of their own markets.

I’d love to hear from you. Why don’t we WeChat? But first I need to send a short message from my microblog and content-sharing sites, which point people to the blog where I posted this article. I know blogs are so 2009, but I have yet to find a suitable replacement. Blogs and commenting systems, by the way, have been popular for several years, after everyone got tired of wikis, which developed a few years after forums and message boards, and themselves evolved from FrontPage and other WYSIWYG edited sites, which grew from the GeoCities concept of individual, group and community webpages, which attempted to extend usernets and newsgroups into the web browser, after Compuserve, Prodigy and Genie communities, and BBS (Bulletin Board Systems) which have existed both in graphical WWW and older internet forms since the 70′s, which themselves.

And when you think about this progression, the fact is, every new generation of text-based and media sharing platform has simply offered a better iteration of the previous platform – and not by any means a replacement of the entire category, as was often claimed by writers and analysts at each and every step.

Perhaps one day, any platform that requires any typing will cease to exist all together. THEN, I believe the industry could claim email and all other text-based messaging is dead. Until then however, all reports of email’s demise have been greatly exaggerated, again.

In conclusion…

People, consumer and enterprise users, will continue doing what they’ve always done in this and every other situation: Use the right tool for the right job.

It’s up to those in the tech world and every other industry to keep building better and better tools – rather than repeatedly proclaiming that everything a nail, just because one particular vendor or writer likes hammers.


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More Stories By Thomas Krafft

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